Date of Award

May 2018

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


Urban Studies

First Advisor

Kristin M. Sziarto

Committee Members

Anne Bonds, Arijit Sen, Joseph Rodriguez, Aaron Schutz


Community Activism, Familismo, Hispanic, Intersectionality, Latin, Milwaukee


This dissertation analyzes the activism of Latinas in Milwaukee during the 1970s and 1980s. I interviewed women involved in community organizing in that time and place; they shared with me their experiences, and their motivations related to community organizing campaigns. This dissertation explores how members of this group understood themselves to be outsiders, and how the shared outsider status among the Milwaukee Latinas and some white community organizers created solidarity to build Milwaukee’s Latin community. Drawing on in-depth interviews and archival research, I analyze the content of these stories, recognizing common issues of how each woman negotiated family, organizing campaigns, and the multiple power relations within each structure.

As Milwaukee transitioned from Polish American dominance on Milwaukee’s south side, with the increase of African Americans on the north side and Latinos arriving on the south side, these communities collided. One consequence was the rise of Latina activism. As Polish Americans fled the central city, Milwaukee’s south side residents experienced racism and discrimination in the public-school system, housing policies, employment opportunities, and public safety. Mary Anne McNulty and her work with SWEAT Associates was a key influence in community organizing among Latinas. Her forty years of activism influenced the creation of Latin focused nonprofits and built a cadre of Latina and non-Latina organizers.

The community organizing efforts of Latinas was done while negotiating and navigating a male, white-centric society. Analyzing the stories of Latina activists reveals how these women learned to become more visible, not only in the pan-Latino diaspora, but in the broader community. Latinas found their voice and told “herstory” or “ellacuenta.” In Spanish, ellacuenta translates roughly to “she tells a story,” and “she matters.” Latinas made a difference in Milwaukee working on issues that mattered to them, and to their families and children.

My theoretical contribution to the scholarship of community organizing efforts is twofold. First, I use an intersectionality framework to draw attention to how the complexities of power and identity shaped how community organizers worked in Milwaukee. Second, I argue that Latinas engaged in activism using a “family” metaphor to engage and build solidarity in the community. This strong emphasis on creating a sense of belonging in the community along with activism is a practice I call “la extension familiar.” Creating a quasi-family in the community, key supporters in different campaigns became family-like members in the struggle for justices. Latinas valued the support of non-biological family members, but also encountered ambivalence in the process: They had to negotiate sexism, discrimination, and privileged power positions within their biological family, community organizing family, and the community at large.